American times: Low-flow lavatory law drives households round the bend

WASHINGTON
FOR ANYONE aspiring to public office, and for television satirists of every hue there is one line that is guaranteed to raise laughter and cheers across the land. "It's high time to get the federal government out of our bathrooms. Let's get the government out of the toilet!"

If you were wondering what the US federal government, or indeed any government, was doing there in the first place, listen to Representative James Traficant Jnr, a Democrat from Ohio, who is one of several Congressmen to have made the issue his own. "Mr Speaker," he opined, "a flush is not a flush. The old standard lavatory flushed away 3.5 gallons of water; so Congress in its inimitable wisdom passed a new law that said all toilets in America must use only 1.6 gallons of water. Since then, Americans are flushing, flushing, flushing like mad, wasting more water than ever, recklessly trying to remove all of that void."

That was two years ago, when the then five-year-old law came up for review. Now, two things - the drought on the eastern seaboard and a fresh attempt to have the law repealed - have flipped open the lavatory lid once again to reveal what every American has known since 1992 but was too embarrassed to say. The new loos don't work, and - hooray - it's not just you. If they don't actually clog up, they don't do - to put it delicately - all they are supposed to.

You can gauge the inadequacy of the 1.6 gallon cisterns by the number of bathroom dealers proclaiming in their adverts that their particular brand of environmentally responsible new-flush, low-flow (or "lo-flo") lavatory is the only one that will really do the job. You can gauge it also by the notes that you find, not just in restaurants and hotels, but in private homes as well, instructing you how to flush (hold it down) and what to do it if doesn't work (try again).

A Michigan builder who testified before Congress last month said that the size of the lavatory cistern was now an issue whenever he fitted out a new house. A plumber admitted "cannibalising" the lavatories from old houses to install in new ones to get around the regulations. His Congressman, Joe Knollenberg - who is sponsoring the bill to have the law repealed - said he had received "thousands" of calls, letters and e-mail messages in support.

The really desperate admit to making weekend flits to Canada to buy non- regulation models from north of the border (where your cistern can be as big as US ones used to be). Bathroom shops and warehouses in border towns have risen to the opportunity, advertising their "Canadian" lavatories just past the frontier post. The "land of the free" now boasts a black market in lavatories whose proportions would not have disgraced the old Soviet Union.

Lavatories were not the only bathroom equipment to come in for scrutiny under the 1992 law: national standards were set also for taps and for that American staple that was for so long the envy of visiting Europeans - the really forceful shower.

The result has been a lamentable decline in the pressure of bathroom showers to the point where they are almost - dare one say - British in their half-heartedness. Seinfeld, the television comedy series (now ended), showed the characters complaining that the new shower heads just didn't wash the shampoo out of their hair. (It doesn't necessarily, as I can vouch, lather the shower gel either).

The reason for the law, of course, was to save water, and money - yours and the government's. Water in the US is mostly metered, so using less of it cuts household bills. At that time, during the recession, the law also suited plumbers and bathroom fitters, who took on new business as local authorities in drought-prone areas offered people financial inducements to trade in their old loos for new.

Government calculations held out annual savings from the new loos alone of 12,000 gallons of water, up to $50, and plenty of social and environmental guilt.

The drought does not augur well for this year's attempt to repeal the bathroom law, even though the number of Congressmen sponsoring the Bill has risen to more than 80. As of now, Americans will probably have no choice but to have the federal government in their bathrooms for a while longer. And if they were hoping just to flush it down the you-know-where ... well, now you know why they can't.

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